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Origin of Fourth of July

An Americanism dating back to 1770–80
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What is the Fourth of July?

Also called Independence Day, the Fourth (4th) of July is a public holiday in the United States of America that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, which declared the original colonies to be free from British rule.

How is Fourth of July pronounced?

 [ fohrth uhv joo-lahy ]

What are some variants of Fourth of July?

  • July 4th 
  • the 4th
  • the Fourth

History of the Fourth of July

The federal government of the United States officially designates “Independence Day, July 4” as a “legal public holiday.” Independence Day is also widely referred to as July 4, July 4th, the Fourth of July. Data indicates that, of the terms, Independence Day is most common, but keep in mind that is likely because many other countries around the world observe their own independence days, marking when they became independent from a foreign power. That said, Independence Day is widely known in specific reference to the U.S.’s national independence.

The term Independence Day is recorded as early as 1790, but the term Fourth of July, in reference to the U.S. independence, is found as early 1779. Of course, the Independence Day/4th of July commemorates the events of July 4, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which declared the Thirteen Colonies to be free and independent of England.

The Second Continental Congress, which formed after the start of the American Revolution in 1775, voted to declare their independence (sovereignty) on July 2, but the Declaration of Independence, the document largely authored by Thomas Jefferson explaining this vote, was adopted on July 4th. When the Founding Fathers actually signed the document, however, remains disputed. American independence from the British monarchy was secured in 1783, marking the end of American Revolution in 1783.

After the July 2 vote, John Adams famously wrote to Abigail, his wife:

The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Indeed, Americans commemorate their independence this way—but on July 4th, of course.

While celebrations of the 4th of July have taken place since 1777, it wasn’t until 1870 (referred to as the fourth day of July as a holiday for the District of Columbia) that it became a federal holiday—unpaid for federal employees until 1938. In 1781, Massachusetts was the first state to officially recognize the holiday.

Why are we emphasizing the word federal (vs. state and local) here? Because the U.S. does not observe any national holidays mandated by the federal government, although the 4th of July is, in effect, celebrated like an official national holiday. The U.S. Embassy in the U.K. provides a helpful explanation here:

Technically, the United States does not celebrate national holidays, but Congress has designated 10 “legal public holidays,” during which most federal institutions are closed and most federal employees are excused from work. Although the individual states and private businesses are not required to observe these, in practice all states, and nearly all employers, observe the majority of them.

Remarkably, both Thomas Jefferson (the U.S. president who enslaved the most people) and John Adams (one of the few of the early presidents who didn’t) both died on July 4, 1826.

Fourth of July celebrations and additional context

The 4th of July is traditionally celebrated with fireworks, barbecues, festivals, and other public events, including readings of the Declaration of Independence. Due to the patriotic nature of the holiday, it often involves red, white, and blue decorations (after the U.S. flag), as well as tributes to American troops and government institutions. On the 4th of July, many people get to enjoy a day off from work to enjoy a long weekend or vacation.

Americans may wish one another (or be wished by residents of other countries) as Happy Independence Day, Happy July 4th, Happy Fourth of July, or simply Happy 4th. The 4th of July appears throughout popular culture, such as in the films Born on the Fourth of July (1989, based on a 1976 autobiography by Ron Kovic) and Independence Day (1996).

The 4th of July, however, remains a complicated holiday given the history of slavery in the U.S. The Declaration of Independence famously observes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But that freedom, equality, and independence was not granted to Black people, who were enslaved and oppressed. Frederick Douglass powerfully addressed this painful paradox in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass memorably remarks:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

More examples of Fourth of July:

“‘I know a lot of my friends are basically canceling the Fourth of July and instead, they are celebrating Juneteenth,’ said NiSheena Smith, an organizer of Avondale Estates’ Defend Black Lives event that will commemorate Juneteenth on Friday. ‘They are saying this is our Freedom Day.’”
—Crystal Jarvis, Decaturish, June 18, 2020

“The Evanston Fourth of July Association has replaced its traditional 4th of July activities with an alternative virtual celebration, due to COVID-19.”
—City of Evanston (Illinois), June 24, 2020

“Intriguingly, July 4th has become a telling historical core sample to the entire American experiment. A look at all the stuff that has happened on this date since the Founding Fathers penned their Declaration reveals the best of this country and, occasionally, the worst.”
—Ty Burr, “Through the years, July Fourth events a microcosm of our nation,” Boston Globe, July 1, 2016

“In the month around July 4th, an average of 230 people end up in emergency rooms each day with fireworks-related injuries, the agency reports.”
—Niraj Chokshi, New York Times, July 1, 2016

Example sentences from the Web for Fourth of July

British Dictionary definitions for Fourth of July

Fourth of July

noun

the Fourth of July a holiday in the United States, traditionally celebrated with fireworks: the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776Official name: Independence Day
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Fourth of July

Fourth of July

The day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776; Independence Day.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.